Wednesday, August 6, 2008


Yesterday evening my phone rang at about 9pm. I didn't answer. You see, our phone number must be the most frequently misdialed number since Alexander Graham Bell walked the earth. We're one digit different from a local pharmacy. Without caller ID, I would have a new, unsatisfying career as an operator for people getting their prescriptions refilled. Caller ID is one of the great blessings of modern technology, but it also has its drawbacks. The best is that I blow off phone solicitors. The worst is that I don't respond to surveys and polls--and I think that people like me should be represented in the samples of 500 or 1000 that represent public opinion.

Last night's wrong number came from "Payphone," somewhere in central Pennsylvania. It was a collect call from a state prison. The automated message, asking me whether I would accept charges for "Tyrell" went through two cycles on my answering machine before it disconnected. The computer voice also informed me that should I answer the call, it might be monitored for security purposes. Poor Tyrell didn't get through.

Sometimes little things, like a missed collect call, shed light on something bigger and more important. In this case, I discovered yet one of the myriad ways that corporate America screws the least powerful people in our society. Animated computer voice operator informed me that the charge for the collect call would be $4.89 for the first minute and $.89 for each additional minute. In other words, Tyrell's mother or brother or friend would be stuck with a bill of more than $8.00 for a mere five minute conversation.

Domestic telephone calls these days are virtually free. But not for prisoners and their families.

Poor and working class people, especially if they are minorities, pay more for virtually everything, from groceries to interest on subprime mortgages. It's another indignity, a reminder of the inequities of our market society, that the families and friends of inmates are stiffed, just for the privilege of a few minutes conversation with a loved one.


kathy a. said...

thank you for posting on this. i believe that prisons also collect a slice of the huge fees for these collect calls.

it is very important for prisoners to be able to keep ties with family and friends on the outside. but a lot of families are forced to refuse to accept them, because they cannot afford them.

Comrade M said...

Meanwhile, the Times today carried a story on getting into $30k/yr kindergarten in Manhattan. This follows a few months' worth of stories on such topics as therapists of the Manhattan investor class, $10k/yr summer camps, and the pathetic neuroses of wealthy people who have to downgrade from one class of private jet to another ("It's Not So Easy Being Less Rich").

Tom S said...

Thanks, Kathy A. and Comrade M. for your comments. As Michael Harrington once put it, America is a country of socialism for the rich and the free market for the poor. I won't shed too many tears for my upper-class betters in the Big Apple whose wealth is sheltered by federal tax policy, but who have taken a hit from the collapse of the mortgage market. But I will continue to feel outraged at the costly indignities that again and again screw the "undeserving" poor.

Anonymous said...

Up until about ten years ago, the fees for collect calls actually made a certain amount of sense-- they had to go through different circuits, and there was a noticeable slice of an actual human operator's time setting things up. Nowadays, of course, it's just stupid... you're burning two cents worth of CPU cycles, there.

So, in addition to being an example of how the poor get screwed, it's an example of how technology that SHOULD reduce costs somehow, magically... doesn't.l

kathy a. said...

check this out: a montana sherrif is losing too much money letting his inmates call their lawyers for free.

David said...

I wonder how much money the people in jail cost other poor people by committing crimes.

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